Carnival – Somerset style! A Glossary.

Copyright - Vicky Garnett
Gremlins 2012 ‘Revolution’ – Photo Copyright Vicky Garnett

Bridgwater Carnival rumbled through the market town on Saturday, before it continued on to Burnham-on-Sea on Monday, and Weston-Super-Mare this evening.  The ‘Guy Fawkes’ Carnival in Bridgwater, though, always kicks of the Carnival season in the northern part of the county (more southern towns get their carnivals a little earlier), and has its fair share of excitement and rivalry among the clubs.  This year, Gremlins Carnival Club, originally formed by ex-RAF members back in the 1940s, were hoping to get their tenth win in a row – but were thwarted by Ramblers Carnival Club, who are based in the Bunch of Grapes pub in Bridgwater.  It has to be said, both clubs took a very similar approach to their carts this year, even down to using the same music, so it was probably a particularly bittersweet defeat for Gremlins.

But I’m not taking sides on that one!  Instead, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the words and phrases that have built up around the Carnival over the years….

For those of you not familiar with the phenomenon of ‘Carrnnvull’ in Somerset, let me enlighten you.  The Carnival began life as a procession through Bridgwater to take old boats up to Cornhill to be burned on a bonfire for Guy Fawkes night.  The processions became more and more elaborate with costumes and music accompanying the procession, which eventually became the main focus of the procession.  Over the years, phrases associated with the Carnival have come and gone…

Black Friday – A relic of the recent past.  Bridgwater Carnival used to take place on the Thursday closest to 5th November.  This meant that the Friday afterwards was a day for Carnivalites (see below) to celebrate their achievements the night before.  These celebrations took more or less the entire day, and usually involved a pub crawl around the town.  As you can imagine, this was met with conflicting reactions.  To the revellers, it was a great opportunity to ‘relax’, have a few drinks and socialise before taking on North Petherton Carnival the following night.  There would often be other non-carnivalites out on the town, joining in with the festivities.  To the Police, and other townsfolk, however, they were a massive pain in the, ahem, cart.  The shift from Thursday to Friday nights for Bridgwater Carnival in 2001 effectively saw an end to Black Friday.  There was an attempt to move it to ‘Black Sunday’, but it wasn’t the same!

Carnival Cart – It’s vitally important to remember that the entries are carts, and definitely NOT floats!  This is because the processions originally took place on carts drawn by horses.  While they might resemble the floats you might see in the Disneyland parades, or Paddy’s Day parades, they are definitely not the same thing (even though the look almost the same).  Never get this mixed up.

Carnivalite – Anyone who takes part in the Carnival, usually as a member of a carnival club.  They could be part of the ‘back-stage’ crew, one of the performers in the Carnival concerts, or a performer on one of the carts.  Carnivalites are very VERY passionate about their club, and with good reason.  Carnivalites work all year round, volunteering their time for fundraising for their club and for charity, building the carts, practising dance routines, making costumes, taking part in the concerts, dancing under hot lights nearly every night for 2 weeks, and finally dismantling that year’s cart to start doing it all again for another 12 months.  To Carnivalites, Carnival isn’t a hobby – it’s a lifestyle.

Squibbing – At the end of the Bridgwater Carnival, one or two members from each Carnival Club hold up a squib – a roman candle like firework – on a cosh (a block of wood for the squib) on a stick.  The carnivalites all line up along the High Street in Bridgwater, and when the signal is given, they all light their squibs and hold them above their heads.  The carnivalite whose squib stays alight the longest ‘wins’ on behalf of their club.  It’s quite the honour for a carnivalite to get selected to represent their club, and after completing a 3 hour circuit of the town dressed in a costume, dancing over and over to the same song under hot lights, they probably need the boost!


Be warned – there’s a little bit of ‘language’ in this video!

Tableau – a word with many meanings, but in Carnivalite, it means a cart on which the performers must remain entirely still, creating a 3D picture.  These are probably the hardest carts to pull off, as often the performers are required to hold their poses for the entire 3+ hours duration of the procession.  In the cold.  The heat from the lights can only go so far, and the poor sods at the front of the carts, usually over the tractor, are the ones pulling the most acrobatic poses, like this fella stuck nearly upside down on the Pentathlon Cart in 2012:

A short but sweet walk through the language of the Carnival.  Do you know any more terms associated with the Somerset Carnivals?  Care to share them below…

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